Lawrence Livermore National Lab researchers have become the first to 3D-print aerospace-grade carbon fiber composites, opening the door to greater control and optimization of the lightweight, yet stronger than steel, material. The research represents a "significant advance" in the development of micro-extrusion 3D-printing techniques for carbon fiber.
"The mantra is 'if you could make everything out of carbon fiber, you would' – it's potentially the ultimate material," explained Jim Lewicki, principal investigator. "It's been waiting in the wings for years because it's so difficult to make in complex shapes. But with 3D printing, you could potentially make anything out of carbon fiber."
Carbon fiber is a lightweight, yet stiff and strong material with a high resistance to temperature, making the composite material popular in the aerospace, defense, and automotive industries, as well as sports such as surfing and motorcycle racing.
Carbon fiber composites are typically fabricated in two ways: physically winding the filaments around a mandrel or weaving the fibers together like a wicker basket. This results in finished products that are limited to either flat or cylindrical shapes, Lewicki said. Fabricators also tend to overcompensate with material due to performance concerns, making the parts heavier, costlier, and more wasteful than necessary.
However, LLNL researchers reported printing several complex 3D structures through a modified Direct Ink Writing (DIW) 3D-printing process. Lewicki and his team also developed and patented a new chemistry that can cure the material in seconds, instead of hours, and used the Lab's high-performance computing capabilities to develop accurate models of the flow of carbon fiber filaments.
"How we got past the clogging was through simulation," Lewicki said. "This has been successful in large part because of the computational models."
Computational modeling was performed on LLNL's supercomputers by a team of computational engineers, who needed to simulate thousands of carbon fibers as they emerged from the ink nozzle to find out how to best align them during the process.
"We developed a numerical code to simulate a non-Newtonian liquid polymer resin with a dispersion of carbon fibers. With this code, we can simulate evolution of the fiber orientations in 3D under different printing conditions," said fluid analyst Yuliya Kanarska. "We were able to find the optimal fiber length and optimal performance, but it's still a work in progress. Ongoing efforts are related to achieving even better alignment of the fibers by applying magnetic forces to stabilize them."
The ability to 3D-print offers new degrees of freedom for carbon fiber, researchers said, enabling them to have control over the parts' mesostructure. The material is also conductive, allowing for directed thermal channeling within a structure. The resultant material, the researchers said, could be used to make high-performance airplane wings, satellite components that are insulated on one side and don't need to be rotated in space, or wearables that can draw heat from the body but don't allow it in.